Jake White’s ‘fresh perspective’ after life-threatening surgery

Jake White’s ‘fresh perspective’ after life-threatening surgery
Jake White during the Vodacom Bulls press conference at Loftus Versfeld on 25 November 2022 in Pretoria. (Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images)

Bulls director of rugby Jake White is full of rugby enthusiasm and on the comeback trail, after a near-death experience that reignited his rugby fire and ‘opened his eyes’ to life’s opportunities.

Bulls coach Jake White hopes to see a capacity crowd at Loftus when his troops host the Stormers in SA rugby’s biggest north vs south United Rugby Championship (URC) derby in a fortnight. But he also wants fans to appreciate the joy in just being able to be there, as opposed to aiming for a specific result.

Don’t misinterpret this as White not wanting the Bulls to win. Rather, it’s a reminder that the beauty of the game is bigger than any individual, team or result, and that just being in a position to watch showdowns of this pedigree is a privilege.

“I see things completely differently now,” said White, less than a month after emergency surgery, and a week in intensive care, to save him from a blood clot that wrecked his small intestine.

“Rugby is fantastic, and working in professional sport and coaching in a league like the URC is a privilege. I’m still driven to be competitive and I never want to be in a place where I’m doing this job for the sake of it. But, after this experience, I’m working with a completely different framework on how to motivate players, and how to get balance in life.

“Life experiences like these really make you grow as a coach,” said White. He says as much as “the game, technology and coaching methods have changed considerably in recent years”, he is able to coach better “because the perspective it provides means you talk differently”. 

Small intestine, large awakening

On Sunday, 8 January, two days after the Bulls had beaten Dragons RFC 29-14 at Rodney Parade, White went under the knife in a two-hour operation to salvage his small intestine.

White emphasises that he remains a red-blooded coach with steely determination to drive the Bulls to the title, but that this sudden, close brush with death gave him “crystal clarity on how to order his life”, which he believes will greatly benefit the Bulls.

“Look, the doctor told me that the first question I asked as I came out of theatre was: Did the Stormers win?”

“I went in while they were playing Glasgow, and the reason I wanted to know was because of the implications to our campaign, and because of my competitive edge. I will never lose that.

Jake White during the Sharks’ captains run at Kings Park in March 2014 in Durban. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

“But it also made me think, if we were unbeaten and I had died that night on the operating table, would it have made a difference? Would it have made me feel any different, if we had not lost a game all season?

“Lying in intensive care, with pipes down your throat, gives you time to think clearly. It’s an experience that has taught me about balance, and how quickly things can change. Rugby isn’t the be-all and end-all, even if you’re as competitive as I am. What that means is that I’m going to be very different as a coach.

 “I can now use real-life experience to talk about how quickly it can all be over. I’m going to coach with a focus on playing with a smile – and living it, not just saying it. I’m going to actively push that as part of my mantra now, and for the players to genuinely smile because it’s fun, it’s a joy and a privilege to be able to get to play.

Keep loving it

“Now, I’m looking forward to getting back and being the guy who really keeps loving rugby. It hasn’t always been like that. When you get burnt or scarred by the game, you feel very low at times. But this sort of thing makes you realise, in the bigger scheme, to keep the highs and lows in context. And to keep it real.

 “I can’t wait to get back to work, to exude the excitement I want these guys to live by, every weekend.”

 “Excitement” may not be a word bandied about much, as the Bulls have lost five of their last seven matches, including three of their last four URC clashes. Here again, White has a renewed outlook on circumstances.

 “I see things completely differently, we’re in a wonderful place. That doesn’t mean we’re going to win it, but we’re in it,” he said.

 “The truth is we’re not good enough to have the high road in every competition we play in. We’re not Leinster, yet. We strive to be the team that runs out at home in the playoffs of multiple competitions. But we’re still putting a team together, and sometimes you’ve got to go on the low road and play away in the play-offs.

 “But it’s all about perspective. Right now, we are seven points ahead of where we were this time last year, and we made the final. And this season, we’ve played more away games than any other team – and that’s in a competition where the win-rate away from home is 25%.

 “If you put that all together, we are very much alive in this race. And take it from someone who knows the feeling when I tell you, all we need to be is alive.”

Sharks replacement scrumhalf Cameron Wright holds off his opposite number Charlie Shiel in the Edinburgh Rugby vs Sharks, in the URC match in Edinburgh, on 28 Jan 2023. (Photo by David Gibson/Fotosport/Shutterstock/BackpagePix)

Coastal derby: Stormers vs Sharks

In the only URC fixture of the weekend, the Stormers trek to their coastal rivals, the Sharks, to play a vital rescheduled match.

 The match has been rescheduled twice. It was originally set to take place in round one of the competition, but was postponed after players in the Sharks camp contracted Covid-19. It then was moved a day later, after a scheduling conflict at host broadcasters SuperSport.

The highly-anticipated clash will take place this Saturday, but will exclude a host of Springboks — they are on a set resting period, in preparation for this year’s World Cup.

The match is crucial for the rejuvenated Sharks, who have at least one match in hand to the rest of the teams in the URC.

The Sharks are currently eighth on the log. A bonus-point victory over their coastal foes will take them to sixth-place — their highest spot on the standings so far this season.

The Durban-based side is coming off a magnificent 22-19 victory over Edinburgh in Scotland last week, and will hope to carry that momentum into their next four matches played in the country, albeit without their Springbok stars. 

The Stormers, on the other hand, suffered a rare defeat last week — a humbling 35-5 loss to Ulster.

The Cape Town side has been in second place on the URC log for most of the season, but the chasing pack is closing in. Third-, fourth- and fifth-placed Ulster, Bulls and Glasgow Warriors all have the same number of victories as the Stormers this season, with bonus points and a draw to Ospreys earlier this season keeping the Stormers afloat.

Both teams are desperate for a win, which could ignite an exciting match for spectators at Kings Park Stadium. Hopefully the lack of Springbok stars in both teams does not detract from the encounter. 

Kick-off is scheduled for Saturday 4 February in Durban at 2pm. DM


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